'Heil': Munich Review

Munich Film Fest
Hilarious and insightful until it runs out of steam

Director Dietrich Brueggemann tackles Neo-Nazis, the German Secret Services and the media in this ambitious and no-holds-barred comedy headlined by Benno Fuermann

Nazism, Neo-Nazism and "Nipsterism" -- yes, Nazi Hispterism! -- all come in for some serious ribbing in Heil, the audacious and frequently uproarious fifth feature of the extremely talented German -- yes, German! -- director Dietrich Brueggemann. After a very serious effort to look Nazi evil directly in the face in Oliver Hirshbiegel’s Downfall and a farcical attempt at getting Germans to laugh about it, with Dani Levy’s Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, Heil tries to use humor to explore some very serious issues. Though the film isn’t quite a home run, this is nonetheless an impressive attempt at intelligent satire, peppered with a lot of local references (not all of which will translate fully). After premieres at the Munich, Karlovy Vary and Jerusalem festivals, the film will hit local screens July 16. Offshore, it might just be that unicorn of world cinema: A German comedy that actually travels. 

Brueggemann’s film before this one, the rigorously austere Berlinale competition title Stations of the Cross, was spiked with occasional moments of extremely black, calculatedly uncomfortable humor. And audiences could be forgiven for wondering whether it was appropriate to laugh at the story of the spiritual and physical emaciation of a teenage girl from an extremely religious family. But taken together with this film, it is clear the writer-director uses comedy to expose the absurdity of situations that are laughable yet dangerously life-like. Indeed, in its best moments, Heil is both hilarious and insightful.

After a quick montage sequence that serves as a bold and extremely crude kind of continuity device -- here too, viewers might wonder whether or not it is appropriate to laugh -- the film proper opens with a minutes-long fixed shot of an Asian food truck in an industrial zone in the middle-of-nowhere town of Prittwitz, where nothing much seems to happen. At least, not until a strong-jawed skinhead, Johnny (Jacob Matschenz, in his third Brueggemann film), steps into the picture and spray-paints something on an unseen wall. This leads to a quickly cascading series of events, as the foreign food-truck employee dares to make a comment about his grammar; a policeman gets involved and a journalist then tries to embellish the truth to get a better, more sellable story.

Like in much of the film, the scene is a series of rapid-fire causes and effects told with breakneck speed and a zany energy, though at the same time. The events also have an absurdist edge from the start, with the immobile wide shot letting things play out on a fixed “stage,” like a comedy routine. But what happens in the scene is very telling as well: The female food-truck worker, a working-class foreigner, is more adept at languages than the unemployed local skinhead who wants the likes of her out of the country and whose supposedly democratic act of voicing his opinion involves defacing someone else’s property, for which he’s called out.

The journalist -- who thinks his story could be improved by adding some swastikas on the wall -- suggests that the ugly reality portrayed here isn’t quite enough, since he’s dependent on sensational stories to both advance his own career and the economical well-being of the outlets he works for. It’s a testament to Brueggemann’s talent he manages to convey all this in the film’s first couple of minutes while not skimping on the laughs.

Though Stations of the Cross consisted of long, often static shots, the rest of this film here is more conventionally cut together, as an Afro-German celebrity intellectual, Sebastian Klein (Jerry Hoffmann), the author of the (fictional) pro-integration bestseller The Coffee-Stained Nation, is kidnapped by Johnny and his fellow skinhead, Kalle (Daniel Zillman). Both men work for an extreme-right politician, Sven (Benno Fuermann), who tries to win hearts with the slogan “Germany stays German,” not least the heart of Doreen (Anna Brueggemann, the director’s sister), the head of the only local Neo-Nazi cell not already in Sven’s pocket.

Much of the mayhem that follows derives from her taunt to him to come back "when you rule Germany and have invaded Poland," and Sven then going to rather extreme lengths to try to do just that. It all ties in neatly with the film’s idea that Neo-Nazis are sexually frustrated men in a state of arrested development, though the neo-Nazis aren’t the only target here. Also featured in the densely woven plot, in which unexpected connections keep being revealed, are the German Secret Services, who have moles in each Neo-Nazi cell; the politically-too-correct left, who start literally bashing each other’s heads in over which terms to use; and the sensationalist media, who’ll embellish any odd fact into a major controversy just to see the ratings skyrocket, societal repercussions be damned.

There are some scenes here that are pure slapstick -- such as the fact Sebastian keeps losing or getting back his memory whenever he hits his head -- others that require a little more intelligence to put them together, such as a minor subplot involving the Austrian flag that has a priceless punchline. There’s some neat satire as well as a some in-jokes that’ll mostly be lost in translation, such as many German cameos, including two that deserve singling out here: the director himself shows up as a man on a drip in a hospital but a filmmaker called Dietrich Brueggemann is actually a guest on a talk show, where he’s played by colleague Tom Lass (this fictional Brueggemann delivers an offhand soundbite that turns out to be the key to unlocking the tone of the entire feature).  

All this manic business starts to feel a little bit tiring -- and, frankly, tired -- by the final act, mainly because the conclusions that the director draws are often funny but he has problems connecting the various parts in order to show a much bigger picture of what's plaguing contemporary Germany. Heil occasionally comes close to digging into the German psyche a la a film such as Finsterworld, though this impulse is crushed each time by the steamrolling power of the film's rapid-paced plot machinations, which finally take precedence over any larger discourse, which is a shame. 

Actors are all extremely game and the production values are solid, even where tanks and Nazi memorabilia are concerned.

Production companies: Ream Film Berlin, Bella Firma

Cast: Benno Fuermann, Liv Lisa Fries, Jerry Hoffmann, Jacob Matschenz, Daniel Zillman, Anna Brueggemann, Hanns Zischler

Writer-Director: Dietrich Brueggemann

Producers: Michael Lehmann, Katrin Goetter

Co-producer: Dietrich Brueggemann

Director of photography: Alexander Sass

Production designer: Theresia Anna Ficus

Costume designer: Juliane Maier

Editor: Vincent Assmann

Music: Dietrich Brueggemann

Sales: Beta Cinema

 

 

No rating, 103 minutes

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